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- June 10, 1996
- Vol. 45
- No. 23
An Honors Student Turns Call Girl—and Pays with Her Life
FANNIE WEINSTEIN; MELINDA WILSON
LAST SEPTEMBER, SHORTLY AFTER 23-year-old Tina Biggar was reported missing from her Farmington Hills, Mich., apartment, her younger sister composed a loving reminiscence. "We stuck together through all the arguments with our five brothers about their dirty habits and video games," wrote Julie Biggar, 17, who went on to recall her loneliness when Tina had left for college five years before: "I wouldn't get to hear about her day or have someone to crawl into bed with when I got scared." Julie ended with a prayer: "Please, God, keep her safe and bring her home to us."
But by then, Tina Biggar was already two weeks dead. On Sept. 21, 1995, her body was found in some thick brush behind a vacant house in Southfield, Mich., hidden there by Kenneth Ray Tranchida, 42, a drifter and ex-con who would be charged with her murder. According to the Oakland County coroner, she was probably strangled, but the autopsy was inconclusive because the corpse was so badly decomposed. On Sept. 25, Julie's poignant memoir would be read at a candlelight memorial at Oakland University near Detroit, where Tina had been an honors student in psychology.
Bright and magnetic, Tina Biggar seemed to have led a charmed life—even as a part-time waitress at the Rochester Chop House, where she routinely earned the highest tips. "She could wait on anybody and make them love the place and love her," says waiter Chris Stearns, 22, a classmate and close friend. Biggar's father, Bill, 45, a Coast Guard commander, called her a role model. "Ninety-nine percent of us," he told reporters, "would do well to aspire to be a person like she was."
But in the weeks after her death, a more darkly complex portrait of Tina Biggar began to emerge. While pursuing a research project on AIDS awareness and condom use among prostitutes, she apparently crossed the line from observer to participant: Unknown to family, friends—even Todd Nurnberger, 25, her live-in boyfriend—Tina moonlighted as "Crystal," a call girl for three Detroit-area escort services, taking in at least $100 an hour. Last summer, Tranchida, who was one of Biggar's clients, became her lover in earnest. He claimed she died accidentally in a scuffle, and he was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder to spare her family the anguish of a trial. On May 3, he was given life in prison, the maximum penalty in Michigan for that crime.
Before his sentence was read in a Pontiac, Mich., courtroom, Tranchida looked toward Biggar's father and her mother, Connie, 45. "I miss Tina," he said, "just like you guys do."
Although the mystery of Biggar's death has been solved, other questions remain. What drew Tina to a ne'er-do-well like Tranchida? And what drove her fatal descent into the Detroit demimonde? Some clues may lie in her past and in her turbulent sexual history. Born in South Dakota, Tina moved often with her family as her father was transferred, living in Miami, Kodiak, Alaska, and Traverse City, Mich., where the Biggars now reside. "She wasn't just close with her family," says Aimee Vermeersch, 29, her best friend and manager of the Rochester Chop House. "She was extremely close with her family."
In 1990, while at Kodiak High, Biggar became engaged to Jory Staton, an enlisted man in her father's unit. She broke it off, a friend told police, because Staton (who would later be court-martialed for raping another woman) was physically abusive. Around that time, according to the Detroit Free Press, Biggar also became pregnant. She chose to have the baby, which she put up for adoption.
One day in the fall of 1991, while working at an American Eagle clothing store in Traverse City, she waited on Todd Nurnberger, then a University of Michigan undergraduate.
"I was home for my best friend's funeral, and my parents took me shopping to cheer me up," says Nurnberger, a pharmaceutical chemist. Thinking Biggar was "beautiful and radiant," he returned a couple of days later, "bought some gloves, made some small talk and asked her out." They dated for three years before moving in together. "I loved her with all my heart," he says.
Friends were impressed by the pair's affection for each other. Says Vermeersch: "They were always doing things as a couple." Or on occasion, according to a police report, as two couples, since Todd and Tina sometimes engaged in four-way sex with a young man and his girlfriend.
In the fall of 1992, Biggar entered Oakland University. "She was more into her studies than anybody I've ever met," says Vermeersch. "She lived for them." In September 1994, Biggar volunteered to assist psychology professor Algea Harrison in a research project on AIDS awareness, funded by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, for which she interviewed prostitutes incarcerated at a detention center near Detroit. Later, with Harrison's backing, she proposed an honors project of her own, titled "Survey of Sexual History and Health Practices Among Women Employed as Escorts."
"I had the utmost respect for Tina," Harrison said in a statement released last fall. "She was a serious, hardworking student with clearly defined professional goals." In a campus parking lot last summer, Harrison raised the subject of Biggar's proposal with psychology professor Dean Purcell, who chairs a university review board on research projects. Purcell rejected the idea, which was never approved, as too risky. "I would never supervise an undergraduate in a project like that," Purcell recalls telling his colleague. "I don't know what an escort service is like. But my feelings were, no, these people were not, with a capital N, going to want anybody down there mucking around. I thought, 'This is way over the top.' "
Vermeersch recalls how devoted Big-gar was to the CDC project. "It was so intriguing to her," she says. "The different girls she talked to, the different stories they told her and the different things she was learning."
Including, apparently, a few different things about herself. "They [the prostitutes] told her all the time how attractive she was," says Vermeersch. "And that she would do very well [as an escort] because she was so intelligent."
At what point Biggar chose to test that hypothesis isn't entirely clear. But police now believe, based on Biggar's phone records, that in late 1994 she began working for Classical Elegance, a Grosse Pointe, Mich., escort service. When business there proved slow, she approached two sisters who ran their own agencies: Donna Mehdi, 40, of L.A. Dreams, and Debbie Lawson of Calendar Girls. "She also informed us about this research she was involved in," says Mehdi. "She asked if I thought any of the females would be willing to fill out a 150-page questionnaire. I told her, 'God, I don't know.' It never got any further than that." At first, the sisters were underwhelmed with the applicant. "She was a real plain Jane," Lawson (who died of cancer in April at 33) told PEOPLE. "She looked like a schoolteacher."
Nevertheless, Biggar booked as many as 50 appointments between late May and mid-August. Despite her success, "school was her top priority," Mehdi says. "And it seemed like every other weekend she would go up to Traverse City to see her family."
To her bosses, Biggar was an anomaly because of her wholesome appearance and modest dress. "I asked Tina what brought her to this business," Mehdi recalled. "And she said, 'Todd.' " Nurnberger, she claimed, had carried on an affair with another woman. "This is my way of paying him back," Tina said. "Without him knowing it."
On Aug. 11, Biggar booked an appointment through L.A. Dreams with Kenneth Tranchida, who was then working at a car wash. Like Tina, he had been raised a devout Catholic in a large family. After his mother, Phyllis, died in 1971, Tranchida seemed to spin out of control, brawling with other students and stealing from his family. An Army hitch failed miserably—he twice went AWOL and was dishonorably discharged in 1973. Between menial jobs, Tranchida sponged off relatives. "Kenny liked good clothes and nice things," says his stepfather, Joseph, a retired school custodian. "He was a great con man—he made everyone feel sorry for him." Between 1981 and 1993, Tranchida was convicted of at least seven petty offenses, ranging from credit card theft to parole violation, and spent a total of five years and five months in prison.
When he first spotted Biggar, perched on a stool at Hogan's, an upscale singles bar in suburban Bloom-field Hills, he moved in quickly. "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever met," Tranchida told her, according to his friend, Jerry Holbert. Soon they began dating. "He was in love with her," says Holbert, 30, a gas station attendant. "They were going to be a couple." Police say that on Aug. 16 the pair was seen shopping together for a new Honda for Biggar; soon they began fixing up an apartment in suburban Ferndale. Biggar, though, was still living with Nurnberger at the time. When he left for work on Aug. 23, she was asleep. It was the last time he saw her alive.
For 2½ weeks after Tina disappeared, Nurnberger and Bill Biggar searched for her, as did police. From her phone bills it became clear that she had become deeply involved with escort services, and on Aug. 27, Bill Biggar called Debbie Lawson of Calendar Girls. "He said, 'It's confirmed my daughter was leading a double life. Can we meet at a restaurant?' " she remembered. "I think he believed it all had to do with her research. That she was doing undercover work."
Biggar was especially interested in Tranchida, who—based on numerous phone calls Tina made to his number—was now high on the list of police suspects. "I threw my hands over my face and started crying," says Lawson's sister Donna Mehdi. "I said, 'Oh, my God, Debbie, Ken has done something with Tina.' " At the risk of incriminating themselves, the sisters vowed to help Biggar find his daughter. "How could we live with this, to think that man had something to do with her disappearance?" said a tearful Lawson.
At first it seemed Tranchida had dropped out of sight. But on Aug. 31 he left a message with Lawson, looking for action. Caller ID traced him to a bowling alley, where Farmington Hills police found him. Detectives questioned Tranchida on and off for nine hours, but he denied any knowledge of Biggar's disappearance. Frustrated, Bill Biggar took matters into his own hands. About a week later, he caught up with Tranchida at his pal Jerry Holbert's trailer, where Biggar spent the night questioning him relentlessly—to no avail. "I don't know if he knew at that time he was sleeping in the same room as Tina's killer," says Holbert. "Bill just wanted to believe she was alive."
It wasn't long before his illusion was dashed. On Sept. 21, the police were tipped to search a white bungalow in Southfield, recently sold by Tranchida's aunt. They found Tina's body, and five days later Tranchida was arrested in Detroit—after he had swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and slashed his wrists. In a signed confession, he claimed he had welshed on a promise to lend Tina $20,000 for a new car, causing a quarrel. "I grabbed her by the shoulders, and that's when she fell backwards," he said. "She hit her head on that safe I have in my bedroom."
On Sept. 27, a funeral mass was held for Tina in Acme, Mich. Her sky-blue casket was borne from the church to the hearse by six white-gloved Coast Guardsmen. Tranchida was charged with murder the following day, and on Sept. 30, in Elkton, S.Dak., Tina Biggar was properly laid to rest. Two weeks later, Debbie Lawson and Donna Mehdi testified at a preliminary hearing that Tina had worked for them, and that they had helped her father search for Tranchida. Their cover blown, they were soon arrested for solicitation and were sentenced to probation. Nevertheless, they had no regrets about cooperating with the police. "For the sake of the Biggar family." Lawson said, "I would do everything all over again."
Throughout his ordeal, Bill Biggar has refused to concede publicly that Tina was doing anything but research into the sisters' profession. "My daughter's not on trial here," he told PEOPLE last year, before Tranchida's plea to the lesser murder charge avoided a trial. "This is about the son of a bitch who killed her."
But Vermeersch, for one, has come to terms with her friend's double life, calling the tragedy a cautionary tale for anyone seduced by the Pretty Woman image of call girls. "They make it seem like it's a big game, like you can just have dinner and go to nice social events and have these guys buy you jewelry or cars," she says. "In reality, it's a lonely, sad, dirty world. It's a dead-end road."
FANNIE WEINSTEIN and MELINDA WILSON in Detroit
- Fannie Weinstein,
- Melinda Wilson.
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